The reopening of Pakistan’s Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad in October after a government siege in July is a direct threat to the country and to the world community fighting religious extremists and international terrorist networks. Three months after clashes between homegrown militants and the Pakistani army, whom many believed eliminated part of the extremist threat in the capital city, the use of the mosque for Friday prayers and inflammatory speeches against General Pervez Musharraf is evidence of a violent trend that the army may not be able to control.
To Pakistan’s surprise, the army’s raid against the mosque in the summer did little to silence the extremists’ chant for an Islamic revolution. Rather than crush the militants, the government’s siege provoked extremists throughout the country to seek vengeance on behalf of those who were killed during the nine-day standoff in July. Soon after the radical mosque reopened, extremist cleric Maulana Aziz delivered a sermon that called on his followers to start a revolution. He noted, “The nation should be ready for jihad because only jihad can bring a revolution…The students of schools, colleges and universities should spread in the nook and corner of Pakistan and work for bringing Islamic revolution.” In retaliation for the death of Aziz’s brother and the students of the Red Mosque during the siege, Aziz further stated that those who were killed “were dear to Allah. That’s why they have embraced martyrdom [which] has boosted our morale. Every mosque in the country is Lal Masjid.”
Echoing Aziz’s desire for martyrdom, the call for jihad by local groups and by al-Qaeda in its recent videotapes and communiqués prove that the Red Mosque affair is far from over. On the jihadi website Murasil al-Buraq, a September 20 statement entitled, “A Call for Jihad by the Lion, Sheikh Osama bin Laden,” launched by al-Sahab Productions, contained a message warning the Pakistani public and its armed forces that jihad is the only answer. The voice of al-Qaeda’s “grand strategist,” Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, offered praise for a number of Pakistani clerics, particularly Abd al-Aziz Ghazi, the cleric of the Red Mosque who was killed by Pakistan’s armed forces. Seeking revenge for his death, al-Qaeda urged the Pakistani public and the army to rise against Musharraf for his “submissiveness” to the United States.
The recent video also recognizes the tribes of Waziristan, an area in Pakistan’s tribal belt identified with religious extremism, Pashtun nationalism and an al-Qaeda safe haven. Al-Qaeda applauds the tribal leaders and clerics in the province for their “great stand in the face of international kufr (disbelief),” a reference to the United States and its allies. In a strong show of support for the tribal lords, al-Qaeda states, “O Allah, Pervez [Musharraf], his ministers, his ‘Ulama and his soldiers have been hostile to your friends in Afghanistan and Pakistan, especially in Waziristan, Swat, Bajaur and Lal Masjid; O Allah, break their backs, split them up and destroy their unity” .
On another website, Ana al-Muslim, a jihadi known as “Al-Saqr 99” posted a new 80-minute video entitled “The Power of Truth,” in which the al-Qaeda leaders denounced Musharraf for killing Ghazi. Al-Qaeda further discredits the Pakistani leader as someone who “does not deserve the honor of defending Pakistan because [it] is a Muslim land whereas the forces of Musharraf are hunting dogs under Bush’s crucifix” . In a similar message posted on July 11, al-Zawahiri called Musharraf’s order against the Red Mosque a “despicable crime.” Consistent with previous recordings, al-Qaeda urges Muslims inside Pakistan to facilitate an armed rebellion against the country’s rulers for their participation in a war against the international terrorist movement.
Yet how much support does bin Laden have among Pakistanis? In a poll conducted by Terror Free Tomorrow, al-Qaeda has a 43 percent approval rate, the Taliban has 38 percent, and support for local extremist groups fall between 37 to 49 percent. Overall, bin Laden has a 46 percent approval rating with Musharraf falling behind at 38 percent—an astonishing figure, according to Ken Ballen, the director of the polling agency, because it reflects that the Taliban and al-Qaeda “are more popular than our allies like Musharraf” (CNN, September 12). Despite the apparent support for the terrorist movement, most Pakistanis (i.e., 75%, according to the poll) rejected suicide bombings (CNN, September 12).
While most Pakistanis disagree with suicide terrorism, a determined, dedicated and decisive al-Qaeda in Pakistan has adopted the tactic to launch attacks against targets inside both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Through a wave of suicide bombings, al-Qaeda and local jihadis have proven the lethality of their attacks inside Pakistan which have mostly been directed at the Pakistani armed forces, paramilitaries and the police. Borrowed from the Iraqi insurgents, the use of suicide as a weapon of choice has had deadly consequences. In the first half of 2007, there have been more than two dozen suicide attacks in Pakistan. From January to March 2007, suicide bombings have accounted for 67% of civilian casualties, compared to 41% in 2006 (Criterion, July-September). From 2003 to 2006, at least 150 tribal elders in Waziristan have been murdered, most presumably by the Taliban, who have publicly criticized many elders for siding with Pakistan in its war against the militants (Christian Science Monitor, June 8, 2006).
Unprecedented in Pakistan’s history, suicide terrorism is an emerging trend that has gained popularity among militants after the Red Mosque event and the breakdown of a peace agreement between the tribal lords of North Waziristan and the Pakistani government. Pakistan has witnessed a new trend in suicide terrorism—female fidayeen are being prepared to carry out suicide attacks against U.S. interests. On the website of an extremist group, Jamaat-ud-Da’wa, 200 women are committed to striking U.S. targets: “If the U.S. tried to attack Iran or Pakistan like Afghanistan or Iraq then we will kill the Americans through suicide attacks. We will tie bombs with our body and stop the Americans from entering Iran and Pakistan.”
One report suggests that suicide bombers recruited to perpetrate attacks against Pakistan’s symbols of power are rooted in “the cause of Islam and targeting those who are damaging their religion” (Dawn, July 21). Through indoctrination by a senior cleric, young single males are promised paradise. In Voice of Islam in June 2007, an interview with a new Taliban recruit indicates his willingness to commit a suicide operation because he is “interested in women of that world.” A September 9 report by the United Nations, entitled “Suicide Attacks in Afghanistan,” explores the suicide phenomenon in Afghanistan and Pakistan, noting that the “tribal areas [of Pakistan] are an important source of human and material assistance for suicide attacks in Afghanistan,” and suggests that most suicide attackers are poor, under-educated or uneducated, recruited from madaris and male.
Therefore, the steady rate of suicide bombings, motivated by al-Qaeda’s resurgence in the tribal belt, reinforces Musharraf’s claim to the world community that he alone is capable of battling a formidable foe. Chairman of the Department of International Relations at Karachi University, Dr. Moonis Ahmar, told the author in August, “Musharraf sends the message that without me, there is no future.” In public statements, the general has acknowledged, however, that the fight against terrorism and extremism needs the support of the entire nation (Daily Times, September 2). On the other hand, there is growing speculation that his counter-terrorism strategies used against al-Qaeda can be used to counter the “Pakistani” Taliban’s ascendancy in the tribal belt. According to the Afghan interior minister and other experts, Pakistan’s war is directed against foreign militants, with little effort expanded to contain the Taliban .
One of the key challenges to Pakistan is that a resurgent Taliban allied with al-Qaeda—which can maneuver, regroup and rearm—destabilizes Pakistan’s internal security, its relationship with its Afghan counterpart and further nurtures the perception among the international community that Pakistan is a refuge for terrorists. Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid’s recent statement, “Taliban bases and sanctuaries in Pakistan are at the heart of the problem,” points specifically to Quetta as the Taliban base and safe haven (Current History, January; Yale Global Online, May 23, 2006). The exploitation of the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which Ahmed considers the “world’s [new] terrorism central,” inhabited by Pashtun tribes, has refocused attention in Washington and Islamabad . The penetration of the tribal belt by al-Qaeda—once an ally of Pakistan’s intelligentsia—and the Taliban is publicly acknowledged by the Pakistani military. According to Pakistan’s military spokesman, Major General Shaukat Sulat, “We don’t deny the Taliban come and go, but that is not the entire truth” (Washington Post, January 21). Whatever the truth may be, greater U.S. engagement in Afghanistan creates risks for Pakistan. After the U.S. assumed control of NATO forces in Afghanistan, the Taliban said 2007 will be “the bloodiest year for foreign troops” and have indicated a ready supply of at least 2,000 suicide bombers for their spring offensive against the United States (Reuters, February 4).
With the Taliban-al-Qaeda merger in the tribal belt, Pakistan’s general will need to rethink his current strategy in the war against terrorism. In recent weeks, the army’s heavy-handedness against the militants has resulted in civilian deaths in the northern areas and contributed to Musharraf’s growing unpopularity (Christian Science Monitor, October 12). Liked or not, while in charge of a country that is seen as the citadel of Islam and the only Muslim nuclear power, he will continue to be a strategic ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism. Pakistan will continue to garner international attention so long as al-Qaeda, the Taliban and homegrown extremists threaten the state’s grip on power and as long as Pakistan is viewed by Western countries as fueling the fire of violent jihad.
1. On September 20, 2007, a jihadi website posted a message entitled, “Remove the Apostate, al-Sahab Production Presents ‘A Call for Jihad’ by Sheikh Osama bin Laden,” with links to a 23-minute, 36-second message from bin Laden.
2. From http://www.muslm.net/vb, a popular spot for statements and discussions by jihadi group members in Iraq and elsewhere in the Muslim world. The video referenced is dated August-September 2007 and includes statements from al-Zawahiri about the Red Mosque affair.
3. Various reports make this point. See A. Jalali (2006), The Future of Afghanistan, Parameters, 36(1), Spring 2006, p.8; BBC News, August 2007; Pakistan Security Research Unit (PSRU), September 22, 2007.
4. Based on author’s discussions with a senior U.S. government official, who spent weeks along the Afghan-Pakistan border, who noted that a solution to the problem requires more than military might. He strongly advocated the need to understand the cultural and human terrain; that is, to better understand the tribal belt, the U.S. government would need to spend time with the Pashtun tribes to learn about their deeply rooted cultural history and beliefs as well as become familiar with the people currently supporting the insurgents.